Plans on Horizon herald a new dawn for Europe’s research

The Apollo lunar programme was one of the greatest research projects the world has ever seen: a gargantuan project led by the United States government to design and build a rocket to land men on the Moon. Europe has never had anything like this, but with the new Horizon research programme, it is at least heading in the right direction.

In proposals released last month, Horizon Europe – as the programme will be known – would have a €100 billion budget between 2021 and 2027 to turbocharge research and innovation across Europe. If confirmed by European Union leaders, it could at last be the recognition of the essential driving role of science and innovation in the modern economy and society.

Europeans have, of course, a brilliant record in research and development. We’ve built the Ariane rocket, the ‘God Machine’ Large Hadron Collider, the Airbus, devised the computer code for the Internet, MP3s and fanless vacuum cleaners. Europe has never been short of smart, creative minds capable of developing brilliant research.

Yet that ability is not always matched by a similar capacity to translate it into money-spinning products, and Europe’s researchers still lag behind their rivals. Time and again, Europe finds itself losing ground in innovation, as their top researchers flee, and many of their best inventions are harvested elsewhere. The MP3 standard is just one example: developed in Europe, it was commercialised in the US.

The EU is aware of the problem. In 2000, the so-called Lisbon strategy vowed that the EU would spend the equivalent of 3% of its gross domestic product on R&D by 2010. They would repeat the pledge in 2010 with a target in 2020. But today, Europe spends only 2.04% of its output on R&D, compared to 2.79% in the United States and 3.29% in Japan.

Officials accept that the obstacles are numerous and include:

  • Kafkaesque difficulties in applying for a European research grant
  • Bottlenecks on access to private finance, particularly for innovative start-ups
  • low business involvement and buy-in
  • Immigration systems that deter non-EU researchers

The EU produces more science and engineering graduates than the US and Japan combined, but this excellent human potential is underused: both the US and Japan have a far higher share of researchers in their workforce. The challenge is to ensure opportunities to train, attract and retain the best scientific talent.

Now, at least there is a serious EU effort at addressing the problems. Horizon Europe is a start. Its budget is about €33 billion more than the current Horizon 2020 programme, despite the expected loss of the United Kingdom, one of the biggest contributors.

The programme also addresses the innovation issue, by shifting its priorities to make EU research more practical and beneficial. It is always hard to show the tangible benefits, but it answers it in two ways.

Firstly, to be more innovative in areas that matter to people and the economy. It defines five broad global challenges around which research funding is clustered: digital and industry (€15 billion); climate, energy, and mobility (€15 billion); food and natural resources (€10 billion); inclusive and secure society (€2.8 billion); and health (€7.7 billion).

And secondly, the research will be mission-oriented, looking at challenges like cancer, clean transport or plastic-free oceans. EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas said that these ‘missions’ should capture the imagination of the wider public, and be co-designed with citizens, governments, businesses, NGOs and other stakeholders. As Moedas noted, future support for science relies on the public understanding the value that it brings to society. “Taxpayers don’t know why you need €1 billion to map the brain, but if you tell them that you are going to cure Alzheimer’s disease, they get it,” he said.

The budget sets aside €16.6 billion for the European Research Council (ERC), which gives out generous basic research grants (up from €13.1 billion under Horizon 2020). At the same time, the Commission wants to spend €10.5 billion on the European Innovation Council (EIC), a new agency to fund entrepreneurs to stimulate breakthrough technologies using blended finance of grants and repayable loans, a mechanism designed at turning discoveries into products that create markets and jobs.

Critically, the programme will be open to non-EU countries, which will be particularly welcomed by UK-based researchers worried about their post-Brexit future: British research is one of the biggest net beneficiaries in the EU, receiving €8.8 billion in EU grants in 2007-13, €3.4 billion more than it put into the budget. Researchers from Israel and Canada are expected to join in.

There is still a way to go until the new Horizon programme is confirmed. And before any grants are handed out, there will still be some bureaucracy to navigate: research institutions, agencies, universities and individual researchers may need help applying for funding. But the overall programme should be bigger and better than ever before.

Unveiling the Horizon plans, Mr Moedas referred to the Apollo programme, and the huge investment from the 1960s that is still paying off today. That is surely the right model: science and technology drives the economy and much else besides. The task now is to convince European governments to raise investment in innovation, even if the impact may only be visible years down the line.

Authors: Andrew Ing & Leo Cendrowicz

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